Season likely hinges on Thursday

Updated: December 8, 2004, 8:45 PM ET
Associated Press

TORONTO -- Any hope of saving the NHL season hinges on whether the next proposal by the players' association stirs serious negotiating.

All the last offer yielded was three months of silence and hundreds of canceled games.

When NHL officials and union leaders return to the bargaining table Thursday, it will mark their first talks since Sept. 9. That's when the players' association put forth a luxury tax-based system that was rejected by the league because it didn't provide the cost certainty the NHL seeks.

Commissioner Gary Bettman imposed a lockout a week later that has already wiped out 382 games -- and forced the cancelation of the All-Star game.

A two-day window is blocked out for talks, but if things don't go well Thursday, there will be no need for another session Friday.

"I'm very hopeful," Detroit forward Brendan Shanahan said Wednesday, following a rules summit that he convened. "This is the third work stoppage in my career in the last 12 years."

With the season slipping away, the NHLPA invited the league back to the table and promised to be armed with a new proposal in an effort to keep the NHL from becoming the first major North American league to lose a full season.

"We are looking forward to the meeting and are very confident that our proposal will provide a basis to end the owners' lockout and resume NHL hockey with a new CBA that can work for both owners and players," Vancouver forward Trevor Linden, the NHLPA president, said in a statement Wednesday.

Arenas have been given the go-ahead by the league to free up dates previously reserved for hockey on a 45-day rolling basis, which as of now means there won't be any NHL games before the middle of January.

The league is committed to getting a deal that provides a link between player costs and team revenues. The players' association contends that the league will only be satisfied with a salary cap, something the union says it won't ever accept.

But the league and the union have different definitions of what constitutes a salary cap. So until there can be some basic understanding, it seems, there will be an impasse.

"I think our positions are very clear and I don't think it would be constructive to this process to either attempt to bargain publicly or to engage in speculation as to what the offer may or may not be," Bettman said.

The previous plan put forth by the NHLPA included a 5 percent rollback on current contracts, a luxury tax framework that would target the spending of specific teams, and a revenue-sharing system.

Players also offered changes to the entry level system they say will generate $60 million in savings to clubs. That proposal came after a series of negotiating sessions in which the union rejected six concepts put forth by the league and took a three-day sidestep in talks to examine each of the 30 teams' finances.

Details of the new proposal have not been released, but that might be because it was still being formulated this week.

It does not include a salary cap, a source told ESPN's Darren Pang.

"We're not big proponents of the luxury tax. But having said that, we are looking for a proposal that's meant to move the process along," said Bill Daly, the NHL's chief legal officer.

Phoenix Coyotes player representative Shane Doan told the Vancouver Province newspaper that the offer might include more than a rumored 10 percent rollback of salaries.

"This is a proposal that if they say no and won't flat-out negotiate, we can sleep at night because we're giving a lot back and doing everything we can to try and save the season," Doan said.

If the players' association offers a luxury tax system that forces teams that exceed the negotiated threshold to pay upward of 75 cents on each dollar, maybe the NHL will listen.

The previous offer included a proposal that said teams would pay 20 cents on the dollar for payrolls over $40 million.

Bettman said teams lost a total of more than $1.8 billion over 10 years and that management will not agree to a deal without a defined relationship between revenue and salaries. Owners say teams lost $273 million in 2002-03 and $224 million last season.

The league wants a system that makes sure player costs don't exceed 53 percent of total revenues. At that level, the NHL contends that the average salary would drop from $1.8 million to $1.3 million.

An economic study commissioned by the NHL found that players get 75 percent of league revenues. The players' association has challenged many of the NHL's financial findings.

The league has been operating under the same collective bargaining agreement since 1995, when the last lockout went 103 days before a 48-game season was played. That deal was extended twice.

"I'm an optimistic guy," Maple Leafs captain Mats Sundin said. "If they're meeting, it's good."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press